Films for Our Times: "Darkest Hour" (dir. Joe Wright)

01/11/2018 11:24 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2018

First in a series, Films for Our Times

What does the great popular art form of modern times---film---have to say to our tumultuous times, the early 21st century? With the weakening of the post-World War II international order---institutional bulwarks have failed to protect the individual against the ravages of a globalized economy and unending armed conflict; democracy’s spread has been checked by ineffective leadership, resurgent populism and nationalism, and the threat of authoritarianism---our times as a consequence are marked by extreme polarization, loss of identity, disillusion, anger.

A public so alienated, even in a democracy, can fall prey to the blandishments of the autocrat. In November 2016 the world’s oldest democracy, the United States of America, fell prey to proto-autocrat Donald Trump. Since the turn of the millennium, twenty-five liberal democracies around the world have turned illiberal, with strongman leaders consolidating their power over the instruments of government, disenfranchising segments of their populations, exerting more control over the media.

In the belief that culture as much as politics can juice the recovery of a faltering democracy---after all, democracy stems from the “demos” or the people---this series will highlight films, from the vault as well as more recent efforts, that provide that juice. While modern culture---TV, books, drama, film---offers few tools to counter political chaos, emphasizing instead pathology and dysfunction and the dystopian, and while much modern film focuses on the personal to the exclusion of a larger context, still there are gems: Films with protagonists---heroes rather than antiheroes---keenly aware of that larger context, and the peril threatening it, who fight their way to what the Roman poet Virgil called “the upper air.” (See also my series, Books for Our Times and Plays for Our Times.)

“Darkest Hour” (released Nov. 2017)

As a model of resistance standing up to and battling tyranny, Winston Churchill during World War II looms as the example par excellence. As Prime Minister of a beleaguered England imperiled early on with invasion by Hitler’s forces closing in on British forces---the entire British army of 300,000---stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk across the English Channel in France, Churchill must decide: Should he sue for peace and negotiate with the Nazi dictator and his Axis ally Mussolini, as the former P.M. Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, with King George at their flank, insist? Or should he, at the risk of losing the home island itself and rendering its long and storied history as dust, resist? The stakes could not be higher: Much of Europe has already fallen, France has just done so, America would not enter the war for another year-and-a-half---England is utterly alone.

Happily not only for England but the world, Churchill resisted---with canny military strategy, deft political maneuvering, a profound belief in the English people and their character, and stirring oratory. This decision-making, and this crucially decisive time period---May 1940---are the focus of “Darkest Hour,” the magnificent film directed by Englishman Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice”) and starring Gary Oldman as the P.M. in a legacy-securing performance.

In history’s darkest hours, character tells. Churchill knew he was not his party’s first choice as P.M. As he tells his wife Clementine, “This job is not a gift, it’s revenge.” Churchill was blamed, rightly, for his disastrous handling of the Gallipoli landing and its catastrophic loss of life in World War I. But he was also a historian and a politician who’d been inveighing through the previous decade, rightly, against the fascist Hitler and his plans for world domination. Once in power Churchill wasted no time on settling political scores, but formed a coalition government and set about trying to dissuade Chamberlain and Halifax.

Churchill’s lowest point, as the film movingly shows, comes when Chamberlain and Halifax, still with the King on their side, force Churchill to send word through emissaries that England would consider suing for peace. Both Chamberlain, who today is sneeringly equated with “appeasement,” and Halifax are given their due here: They truly fear England’s annihilation, a fear eminently valid. (Plans were made to evacuate the King and family to Canada.) For Churchill, though, proud and defiant as he is, even the thought of surrender sickens and brings him near collapse. Compounding his despair is his own doubt about his record as a leader.

The tide turns, for Churchill, when the King comes round and supports his position. Also, Churchill has set in motion the evacuation of the British forces on Dunkirk, daringly instrumented through the mobilization of an armada of private vessels, a maneuver requiring, however, the sacrifice of the British garrison at Calais, whose commanding officer is ordered to draw the German fire his way “until the destruction of your command.” This daring, and this sacrifice, pay off and enable England, and Churchill, to fight another day.

Then there is the oratory that still thrills---three historic speeches Churchill composed in three weeks, the first two when the hour was darkest: his debut speech to Parliament as P.M., in which he pledges the nation’s “blood, toil, sweat and tears,” and his first radio address to an anxious nation. In his third speech, delivered to Parliament upon the success at Dunkirk, Churchill, restored to full resistance mode, famously vows “victory at all costs”---“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender”---and ignites, finally, unanimous applause. The film’s last line comes from Halifax, responding to the question, What just happened? Screenwriter Anthony McCarten inserts here another famous line, from American journalist Edward R. Murrow who broadcast the war from London: Winston, he says, had just “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the screenwriter pegged that as the film’s last line and wrote his way toward it, trusting, rightly, that a verbal climax has its own compelling force. (Churchill was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”)

The scene in the film giving some reviewers pause---the scene set in the London subway---does depart from the historical record and thus may seem “bogus.” The film conjectures that Churchill, at his nadir suing Hitler for peace, recovers his resolve to fight on when he seeks out a set of passengers in a subway car, explains the dire situation facing the nation, asks their counsel---and gets it, stirringly (“Never surrender!”) from every man, woman, and child present, in a manner that reinforces the national myth of the English people as stalwart and daring.

This scene, which does go over the top gloriously, works me for because I see it as imaginary: It happened in Winston’s mind. Note there’s almost no sound on this subway, no screeching wheels or jouncing bodies. Finding little encouragement aboveground, this small-d democrat goes underground to seek out the “demos” and, from them, takes both guidance and sustenance. All right, this Churchill reading out to his cabinet the names of these stalwarts in the subway, which he noted down in a matchbook, was perhaps de trop. But for those of us---and we are legion across the globe---who worry about democracy’s fragility and how better to translate We the People into policy, the scene works. Besides, if we buy Shakespeare’s King Henry V walking disguised among his men to gauge their resolve before what would unfold the next day as the Battle of Agincourt, the better to spur them on with his “band of brothers” speech, then can’t we buy this subway scene?

As a model of resistance, “Darkest Hour” comes to us at the perfect time. While America is not in its very darkest hour---we are not threatened with foreign conquest---nevertheless we are in a dark hour indeed, a weird and dangerous one unlike any other in our history, threatened from within by a characterless force who cluelessly (or perhaps not so cluelessly) admires a nation, Russia, that explicitly seeks to undermine our democracy. The film offers countless compare-and-contrast tests for the American viewer: Churchill’s sagacity, courage, and magnanimity versus Trump’s stupidity, his dangerous knavery, his lying and vulgarity, his infantile me-me-me-ism, and (this just in) Trump’s racism that sinks to a new and vile low. “As a portrait of leadership at its most brilliant, thoughtful and morally courageous,” writes The Washington Post, “’Darkest Hour’ is the movie we need right now.” As for Trump’s tweets versus Churchill’s oratory, it is to guffaw, if not to cry.

Further, this film’s portrait of Churchill the resister---make that Resister---offers a strong rebuke to those commentators who lately have decried the anti-Trump resistance movement here as nothing more than empty negativism. As vividly acted by Oldman, in resistance---principled resistance---one finds the room and reason to argue, maneuver, experiment, come up with a daring plan to rescue your entire army from annihilation. While the resister knows profound dejection when his principled fight stalls, he also knows highest exhilaration when principle pays off. (The real Churchill also had a wicked wit, which this film scants, but then wicked wit would be out of place in a nation’s darkest hour.) Director Joe Wright admires our resistance movement: “As I travel around America I am really impressed and optimistic at the level of resistance happening in the U.S. at the moment…. People are very vocal and that’s really positive.” About Churchill, he “got a lot of things wrong in his career, and in his personal life, but one thing he got right was he resisted the tide of fascism, bigotry and hate. And that seems to be speaking to America now, and Britain, too.”

The filmmaking is masterful---very clear on the history while revealing equally clearly the individual responses to looming catastrophe---and successfully reaches for the mythic, with snatches of Cicero and an aerial view of a battlefield in France morphing into the eye, reddened, of a classic marble statue. Much of the film is set in the War Cabinet Rooms, the underground warren of spaces where military strategy was fought over and set. All the central performances are strong: Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain, Stephen Dillane as Halifax, Ben Mendelsohn as King George. Kristin Scott Thomas brings humanity and wit to the role of Clementine; her scenes with Winston reflect a deeply loving and knowing marriage. Acting as proxy for young people to enter into the story is Churchill’s young typist Miss Layton, well-played by Lily James.

And, finally, Gary Oldman’s astonishing Churchill. How good to see that the former bad-boy actor---Oldman shot to stardom in 1986 playing punk rocker Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy”---grew up, as he acknowledges he had to, to play and indeed inhabit the most leonine of British lions, Winston Churchill. The rebel morphed into the Resister.

See “Darkest Hour”: In our own dark hour, it illuminates and inspires.

For interviews with director Joe Wright, see here, here, and here.

Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”

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